The kids, I’m sorry to report, are getting sharper all the time. Did you know that Holden Caulfield is now in middle school? That’s right: no longer cadging drinks or wrestling with pimps in fleapit Manhattan hotel rooms, the arch-diagnostician of adult bullshit is currently trick-or-treating and going out for ice cream with his mother. His name isn’t Holden anymore—it’s Greg. But his mood, that current of fretful optimism alternating with a cavernous disenchantment, is more or less unchanged: “I don’t know if this makes me a bad person or whatever, but it’s hard for me to get interested in other people’s vacations.” Or: “I’ll be famous one day, but for now I’m stuck in middle school with a bunch of morons.”
Greg Heffley, underdeveloped narrator of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Jeff Kinney’s mega-selling “novel in cartoons,” wears a nearly permanent frown. At least, it would be a frown, if he had eyebrows: Kinney draws his characters like emoticons, with dots for eyes, U-shaped noses, and downturned-bracket mouths. (Rodrick, Greg’s incipiently delinquent heavy-metal older brother, flexes a set of fierce and hyphen-like eyebrows.) The book opens with a twang of Salingerean surliness: “This [the diary] was MOM’s idea,” declares Greg. “But if she thinks I’m going to write down my ‘feelings’ in here or whatever, she’s crazy. So just don’t expect me to be all ‘Dear Diary’ this and ‘Dear Diary’ that.”
And all that kind of crap, we hear the original Holden adding. Greg doesn’t use the word crap, because Diary of a Wimpy Kid (the movie adaptation of which was released in March) is a book for children. Quite a range of children, actually: 12-year-olds read it, but so do a few 7-year-olds I know. For this crowd, the Diary is Dirty Realism—no dragons, no dying Dumbledores, just the bully in the hallway, the substitute teacher, and a strange bit of playground voodoo called the Cheese Touch. In Rodrick Rules, the second volume in the series, Greg dodges swimming practice by hiding out in the bathroom. But it’s cold in there, in just your bathing suit, so he does the sensible thing: he mummifies himself in toilet paper. (The accompanying cartoon here is especially abject.) His folks are interesting too. Mrs. Heffley, enigmatic behind the twin zeroes of her spectacles, is a shrewd dispenser of domestic justice, while Mr. H (a Civil War nut) tends to do his parenting in lunges of impetuous dad-ness. The Diary’s handwritten font and the deadpan eloquence of the drawings—and the sheer amount of white space on the page—have also made it, in the words of the School Library Journal, “a big hit with reluctant readers.” An enviable constituency for an author to have won, the reluctant readers. Not even Dan Brown can lay claim to many of those.
It’s not just the font and the cartoons, of course. And it’s more than a counter-reaction, a market correction, to the Harry Potter/Percy Jackson axis of piffle. Diary of a Wimpy Kid and its three sequel volumes are droll, coolly experimental, and quite clearly—as far as the kids are concerned—on the money. The cartoons are in a continual and rather sophisticated dialogue with the text, answering, amplifying, or ironizing it, and it’s amazing how much funniness Kinney can inject into his spare little images: I particularly recommend the portrait of Greg’s French pen pal, Mamadou Montpierre, in Rodrick Rules. Deeper and truer than all this, though, is the humiliation—the helpless blushing or glowering of the preteen, as an airborne snigger pursues him down the hallways like a heat-seeking missile. Greg’s best friend, Rowley—an innocent, a sort of holy fool, with hair-trigger weepiness and a panting, never-closed mouth—is a constant mortification to him, as are his parents, his two brothers, his body …
Director Thor Freudenthal’s live-action adaptation captures some of this—caterwauls of laughter on the school steps as Greg’s mother yodels “Have a great day, sweetie pie!”—but not all of it. Filled out into three dimensions, Kinney’s characters lose their spinal droop, their pipe-cleaner arms and legs and distended, frisbee-shaped upper lips, and the comic register shifts, away from the literary experience and toward the cozy precincts of The Wonder Years or A Christmas Story. Which is a shame, because the film misses the vanguard element in Kinney’s writing: beyond Catcher in the Rye, we can locate Greg Heffley on a continuum of non-adult first-person narrators that includes Oskar Schell, from Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close; Christopher John Francis Boone, from Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time; and Roger Painter, from John Darnielle’s novella, Master of Reality. The acuity of children, their direct-hit insight, is not easy to catch, but Kinney does it:
Dad marched me up to my room and shut the door behind him, and then he said—[cut to cartoon of a frazzled-looking Mr. H, his frazzledness denoted by some drifting spots above his head and a comma-shaped eye-bag under one eye, saying (in a speech bubble that is dripping like a melted snowball, denoting froideur) “Let’s you and me have a talk, FRIEND.”] Whenever Dad says “friend” that way, you know you’re in trouble. The first time Dad ever said “friend” like that to me, I didn’t get that he was being sarcastic. So I kind of let my guard down.
Crazy grown-ups! “I asked [Mom] if she was in love with Ron,” recounts 9-year-old Oskar in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. “She said ‘Ron is a great person,’ which was an answer to a question I didn’t ask.” Perhaps the closest the movies have come in recent years to one of these strange literary man-children is Max Fischer, schoolboy hero of Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, squaring up to life with bulbous effrontery and a British Invasion sound track.
And what becomes of them all? Holden Caulfield, as we know, ends up in the bughouse, the booby hatch, the wacky shack, done in by universal phoniness and the sad sordor of Experience. Roger Painter narrates most of Master of Reality, his raging paean to Ozzy Osbourne, from behind the locked doors of an institution called Santa Fe Springs Psychiatric. Like Greg’s, his journal is commenced under duress:
EVEN IF YOU MAKE ME WRITE IN THIS EVERY DAY TIL THEY LET ME OUT OF HERE IT IS ONLY GOING TO SAY ONE THING, GET USED TO IT—I HATE ALL STAFF, ALL DOCTORS, ALL RT’S AND ANYONE WHO READS THIS.
I cannot in good conscience recommend the film Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, but should the child in your life succeed in making you watch it, look out for the following: first, Pierce Brosnan as the front end of a centaur, wearing a leather jerkin and progressing across the screen with mincing, equine steps, and second, the supernatural resolution of teenage pain. Twitching with ADHD, flogged by dyslexia, young Percy is a tangle of misfit symptoms—“Oh, I am going crazy!” he mutters after his first assault by a winged beast—until it is revealed that he is in fact a demigod: an estranged son of Poseidon, a boy whose ADHD is simply misdiagnosed divine sprezzatura, and whose dyslexia reveals that he has a brain “hardwired for ancient Greek.” Even Percy’s vilely perspiring stepfather is part of the plan: “His pungent odor masked the smell of your blood!”
No such luck for the wimpy kids. No one leans down from Olympus, or from Hogwarts, to gather them into the realm of the epic. No supervillains fly at them. They’re stuck here—middlingly, muddlingly—with the everyday meanies, and with the hacks and prestidigitators of the grown-up world. Little Greg Heffley has resilience, and a sense of humor, and he has the loyal Rowley. He even survives the Cheese Touch. But still one worries. Adolescence, be merciful to him. Life, leave him not too long in that lonely bathroom, his thin limbs bound in toilet paper. The wimpy shall inherit the Earth—of course they shall—but in the meantime ...
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